Whether you consider yourself a fashionista or not, clothes matter. The industry is worth US$1.3 trillion, employs more than 300 million people worldwide, and, well, you probably wear clothes. The fashion industry affects us all – and it is in crisis.
Taking into account the vast amount of resources and toxic chemicals used to make clothes, the rampant labor exploitation, the excessive amount of clothing made, sold, and then dumped into landfills – the industry abounds with practices that are not only problematic, but that are destroying our planet.
Let’s look first at how our clothes are made. For the fast fashion industry to incessantly churn out cheap clothes in the latest styles, companies often turn to cheap labor to keep up. Labor exploitation and abuse are increasingly prevalent in the factories in developing countries as a result of pressure from companies to have quick turnarounds and low overheads.
And then there’s the processes to make them. A recent report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation provides some startling insights. The textile industry alone is responsible for 20% of global industrial water pollution and represents 4% of the global freshwater withdrawal. Clothing production consumed 98 million tonnes of oil in 2015 and is expected to use 300 million tonnes by 2050, becoming responsible for 26% of the carbon budget. Between now and 2050, an estimated 22 million tonnes of plastic microfibers will be added to the ocean, all due to the washing of plastic based textiles. Not to mention the 3 kilograms of toxic chemicals necessary to produce only 1 kilogram of cotton garments. The list goes on and on.
Jeans, considered a staple clothing item for many people worldwide, are incredibly bad for the environment. Most jeans you find in stores today are not made purely from denim, but have plastic-based fibers added for give and stretch. Additionally, the process of manufacturing denim uses large amounts of water: up to 2,900 gallons of water for one pair of blue-jeans! (For regular podcast listeners interested to learn more, check out the show 99% Invisible, which has a fascinating series on clothes called Articles of Interest. It’s a great resource for further exploring the cultural aspects and technical processes that go into making clothing, and they have an episode entirely devoted to jeans.)
For those not already pulling out their hair at the state of the fashion industry, here’s the icing on the cake: companies are routinely burning clothes and destroying their own merchandise. That’s right – BURNING IT. Fast fashion brand H&M burned $4.3 billion worth of clothing that it considered unsellable in 2018. While H&M disputed the reasons for burning, it is known to routinely destroy excess inventory, punching holes or cutting slashes in the clothing. The New York Times reported in 2017 on the discovery of bags of Nike shoes that were being dumped outside the store, all completely slashed and unwearable. British luxury brand Burberry destroyed $36.8 million worth of its products in 2017 to guard against counterfeits and ensure the exclusivity of the brand’s name. The company committed to stop this practice after severe public blowback in 2018, but the fact remains that this is a common practice in the fashion industry.
Fast Company staff writer Elizabeth Segran argues that the real problem is that companies are making too many clothes. As they continue to produce and produce, the fashion industry simultaneously trains us to believe that we need more and more. When the companies make too many clothes, they dump and destroy them. When we have too many, we too discard them.
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t throw my clothes away, I give them to Goodwill! Alas, charity shops receive an overwhelming amount of discarded clothing, due to the monumental amount we now buy, and only 15 – 20% actually makes it to a second-hand market. The rest is then sold to a for-profit textile recycling company. That’s certainly a better alternative to a landfill, but was it really necessary for you to buy that item to begin with?
So what do we do? Buy less, buy second-hand, repair what you can, keep your clothes for longer… the list goes on and on. And while these are all things we can and should do, it’s not enough – we can’t bear the full burden of the problem.
In a capitalist society, the pressure to make positive change in the world is often put on the consumer: i.e., be smart with your purchases, put your money where your mouth is. We believe that if we don’t use plastic bags, we buy second-hand clothes, and we eat vegan that we can fix climate change. But is that really fair? Will it even make a meaningful difference? Probably not.
The power of the company far outweighs the consumer, and its naive to place the full responsibility onto the consumer. Companies will continue to burn clothes, whether you buy them second hand or not. Someone will always be there to buy cheap fashion. So by all means forge ahead. If you have the chance to sway the company and it’s decisions, let your choices as a consumer speak loudly. But ultimately what needs to change? Companies. How will this happen? With changes in policy and regulations to keep the fashion industry in check. Let’s work on that.